Syrian displaced working mothers caught in spiral of hardship and guilt

A displaced Syrian woman carrying al-Zal cane sticks in Kafr Lusin in Idlib countryside - 28 August 2020 (Enab Baladi / Iyad Abdel Jawad)

A displaced Syrian woman carrying al-Zal cane sticks in Kafr Lusin in Idlib countryside - 28 August 2020 (Enab Baladi / Iyad Abdel Jawad)


Enab Baladi – Sakina Mahdi

Many questions arise when talking about working mothers’ ability to balance family life and work and the impact of their work on their roles as mothers, especially as women tend to develop a sense of guilt for leaving their children for long hours while they go to work. 

One can only imagine how difficult the situation is for Syrian working mothers living in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) in conditions very different from those of normal stabled families amidst numerous challenges to provide for their children.

Twenty-eight-year-old Rudaina al-Ali lives in al-Khyara camp in Idlib. The mother of two (a girl aged 10 and a boy aged 7) leaves her tent every day to mow weed from fields, earning 10 Turkish liras (TL = 1.3 USD) a day to cover her children’s needs.

“I took many different jobs to fend for my children. I worked in workshops and olive harvesting. I am not happy with my condition, but I have to take whatever job is available. Both my husband and mother passed away, my father lies prisoner in the regime’s detention centers, and I have no brothers or sisters,” al-Ali said.

Early in the morning, al-Ali leaves her two children in the care of her neighbors in a nearby tent, heading to work, and does not return until the sun goes down. She can not enjoy the sight of her children and only spends three hours with them at the end of the day. Al-Ali is the sole caregiver to her children; therefore, she performs the daunting responsibilities of a mother and a father at the same time. She expressed to Enab Baladi her discontent with her situation, which she described as “tragic”.

 “I only have myself to rely on in this community; no one is helping me. I received no financial support from any entity, initiative, or organization to help me cover my children’s living expenses and improve my family and living situation, despite my great suffering,” al-Ali said.

830 million women workers denied adequate protection at work 

Despite progress in maternity benefits, a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) says that most women around the world are still not protected at work.

The report pointed out that most countries had adopted maternity protection provisions since 1919 when the ILO adopted the first Maternity Protection Convention, yet at least 830 million women workers still don’t have adequate protection, according to the ILO.

Lack of safe environment for children at displacement camps

Mahmoud al-Sayed, the al-Tayeb camp manager in northern Idlib, told Enab Baladi that the number of working mothers in the camp is around 50. “They leave their children with an adult in the camp, for they need to work because of poverty and hard living conditions.”

These women are in dire need of work; otherwise, they would not have left their children at the camp either alone or with a stranger to work in workshops or neighboring fields, al-Sayed said.

He pointed out the absent role of associations, saying, had mothers been provided support, such as food baskets or other means of help, they would not have left their children unattended in the tents. Children left alone without a caregiver are at great risk as makeshift tents are no safe environment for children. Many tents were caught on fire after some gas cylinder explosion or for other reasons. 

Several campfire incidents took place due to the explosion of gas cylinders in tents, such as the fire at al-Bal camp in Souran city in the northern Idlib countryside on 2 September 2019, and the fire at Ard al-Matar camp, north of Idlib, that led to the death of a girl and injury of another on 10 January 2021.

On 5 January, a child got burned by the heater in Azaz city of northern Aleppo, according to the Syria Civil Defence (SCD).  

Working is a necessity, not an option

A child’s personality is formed in the first years of his or her upbringing and is greatly influenced by the surrounding environment, namely his/her family and mother in particular. Mothers’ presence is necessary and affects their children’s rearing and physical and psychological development. Mothers inculcate a sense of safety and trust in their children, and their absence causes anxiety, fear, and psychological disorder, physician and family consultant Nusseibeh Jalal told Enab Baladi.

Syrian mothers’ difficult financial conditions in camps have led them to seek job opportunities to secure an income. Working for some families is a necessity, not a choice, and mothers find themselves obliged to work to fend for their families basic needs within these dire circumstances. Mothers’ long hours’ absence can affect their children, especially in their first years, if they were left without proper care, Jalal said.

Dr. Jalal explained that children might develop many behavioral problems, including aggressive behavior, an introverted personality, involuntary urination, nightmares, and low self-confidence due to the long absence of their working mothers. 

Children’s emotional stability is maintained and enhanced by their mothers’ presence, particularly in the first years of their lives. Children have emotional requirements and need love, affection, hugs, laughter, and play. As for working mothers, they live in guilt and under dual pressure caused by their work on one hand and deprivation from their children on the other hand. This results in anxiety, stress, and role conflict that negatively affects working mothers’ relationships with their children, Dr. Jalal added.  

Women who take many roles between raising and nurturing their children and working to meet their basic needs fall victims to role conflict. To these women, it is important to spend time with their children to help them grow healthy, but it is equally important to work and make a living for their children. This dual responsibility puts working women under lots of pressure and stress. Working mothers eventually end up physically and emotionally exhausted by their works and their sense of guilt for leaving their children. 

Displacement camps are home to many widowed women and women who are the sole breadwinners to their families. Life is a daily struggle for these women, who perish themselves to secure livelihoods and face tremendous challenges to provide the most basic needs relying only on relief and relatives’ assistance, a study conducted by Omran Center for Strategic Studies mentioned.

The study developed a set of recommendations for the empowerment of displaced women living in camps, including an analysis of their situations and needs, the formation of women’s groups and pressure forces to help raise their voices, the provision of psychosocial and social support programs, as well as an economic empowerment program. 

Recommendations for working mothers to lessen stress

Dr. Jalal said that working mothers are advised to seek help while raising their children and should not overwhelm themselves with many roles to perform. Fathers should share their partners’ life burdens and child-rearing responsibilities. In the absence of the father, working mothers should ask help from their relatives or neighbors since the Syrian society is known for its social solidarity-based relationships.

It is essentially important for mothers to choose a trusty person to look after their children while at work. They also need to ace time management besides breathing and relaxing exercises to help them better perform their multi-tasks. 

Counseling support is also recommended for working mothers, not necessarily from professionals; any close or trusted person can listen to their problems and offer advice and emotional support. This may lessen the psychological pressure on working mothers and help them spend more quality time with their children, Dr. Jalal said.

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